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MOVIE REVIEWS : Wallowing in Waves of 'Beaches' Emotion

December 23, 1988|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

In holiday kitchens everywhere, dough is being kneaded, twisted, stretched, pummeled and manipulated, all in the name of the season. To know just how that must feel, put yourself at the mercy of "Beaches" (citywide), the most shamelessly manipulative movie since they shot the dog in "The Biscuit Eater."

Well, manipulation isn't necessarily bad. You can have a great cry at movies so brazen they should have a Kleenex concession in the lobby. There are under-the-dryer books, and Iris Rainer Dart's original novel was one of them, that calculatingly put you through a wringer and you forgive them for it. But "Beaches"' is no longer Dart's full, wallow of a story, and the movie's maneuvers in its place are so inept they don't work.

The novel's C.C. Bloom, the tenacious redhead who becomes a superstar, fit Bette Midler as snugly as the mermaid tail in her revue numbers of treasured memory. She is inevitable--you might call it preordained--casting. And there's everything right with the idea of Barbara Hershey as C.C.'s friend, now upscaled along with the rest of her family and rechristened Hillary.

"Beaches" has a perky opening, one bawdy Midler number so good it might have come from one of her old reviews, and four more songs for her (one of them Randy Newman's moving "I Think It's Going to Rain Today.") Both actresses have done their best, Hershey within the limitations of her role, Midler in the plum of the piece. None of that is chopped liver. And reportorial honesty requires me to say that the soggy hankie count around me was impressive.

Still. "Beaches" is supposed to be the story of an abiding friendship between two very different women, beginning in Atlantic City when they're 11 years old and continuing for 30 years. But Mary Agnes Donoghue's adaptation, which has been sanitized for our protection--cocaine use and the middle class expunged--doesn't bother with believable grounding for a friendship this lasting. The movie is missing what the book had reams of: heart, connective tissue, sense, sensibilities, a good ear and a bad mouth.

We need scenes of a friendship catching hold and sustaining two not-so-like women through thick and very, very thin. We need to see them enmeshed in the real stuff of life (exactly the stuff that "The Accidental Tourist" understands so well), not flip banter, irresistible as banter can be coming out of Midler's mouth.

In the movie's gaudy, funny opening we can understand why the girls would strike sparks as they meet under the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Brash, cigarette-smoking, mop-headed Midler-to-be (the cheerfully electric Mayim Bialik), is part of a tawdry kiddie show. All that seems pretty dazzling to Hillary (Marcie Leeds), who leads an extremely well-modulated life as a child of rich San Francisco society parents. After C.C.'s singing is one-upped by another (prettier) child performer whose talent is walking up stair-steps on her hands, Hillary defends C.C. glowingly, and the two swear to become deathless pen pals. So far, so lively.

But to make the transition into these girls in their early 20s, we get only tiny vignettes and voice-over letters covering the next 15 years until they see one another. From then on, C.C. and Hilary seem to meet only to fight with one another on the thinnest pretext. You can't have friendship without feeling, and how can we feel for people who are forever shrilling at each other.

"Beaches" (rated PG-13, for salty language) is bloodless, and Garry Marshall's direction, which might have given it style, is completely competent and entirely without personality.

During the film's fully packed two-plus hours, the women will have to deal with almost every vicissitude known to soap opera and "A Star Is Born," including marriage, divorce, abandonment, attraction, stardom, loss of stardom, motherhood and the threat of parting forever. (What is it about the mother-daughter chemistry between Hershey and the child playing her 8-year-old? Is "The Good Mother's" mommy-daughter play-acting style catching ? Let us devoutly trust not.)

A thin but underutilized John Heard can be found as the New York theater director who catches Midler's fancy and Spalding Gray is the San Francisco gynecologist smitten by her talent. Has anyone been able to tell when Gray is playing a role completely straight? He always seems to be parodying his character, which, given his lines here, seems irresistible.

Of course there is a sacrificial ending. It's a beaut, with nothing spared, from "The Glory of Love" quietly on the sound track to a fiery setting sun on the horizon. Presumably, C.C.'s learning to care about others for the first time brings out her better self; it certainly brings out those Kleenexes.

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